When a couple of mates began brewing in Newtown, they had a modest ambition to make quality beer for the locals. Seven years on, Young Henrys continues to grow rapidly and is one of the success stories of Australia’s ultra-competitive craft beer scene.

By Jane Nicholls

It’s something of a beer fairytale: brewer and bartender get talking over drinks, find a shared love of craft beer and decide to launch a beer club. “They called it Beer Club, very original!” quips Young Henrys sales director Dan Hampton. “It began in 2011 as monthly hangouts with a lot of locals coming to taste craft beers from around Australia,” he adds. They dream of creating their own brewery, one that’s “just as in touch with its local community as Beer Club”.

The brewer was Richard Adamson and the barman was Oscar McMahon. They decided to take the brewery fantasy away from bar chit-chat and “see if they could make it happen”, says Hampton. “Rich was daddy day care at the time looking after his son, and before one ideas meeting Oscar asked, ‘Is young Henry coming along to the meeting?’ And they wrote that down as a working title until something better came along!”

And so Young Henrys came to brew in a small warehouse in Newtown, selling to local pubs and bars. They found a public so thirsty for their beer that within months they took over the warehouse next door and built a bigger brewery.

Hampton had been working with Little Creatures, which had just sold to Lion for $380 million. “I still felt the passion to be part of something smaller,” he says. About six months after it launched, Hampton joined his mates at Young Henrys, “threw my money in” to become a shareholder and became head of sales, “one person, me,” he jokes.

Seven years on, Young Henrys employs 80 staff and while it’s a very different operation in scale, has stayed true to their original mission: great beer and community. And of course, there’s a lot of hard work behind the fairytale.

Caption: Richard, Oscar and Dan (left to right)

A winning formula

“Rich is all about the brewing and the recipes, Oscar is brand, which comes very naturally to him, and I’m the sales element. That’s how it works and perhaps why it works,” says Hampton.

“We liken how we’ve set up Young Henrys to a band – it’s a flat structure, everyone gets a say and we all do things we think are cool and fun,” he adds. “Bands only work when everyone’s pulling their weight and yet connects on a slightly different level and that’s what we’ve found with Young Henrys, which I think is quite rare: a few people getting together at the right time and all ready for this journey.”

Generosity of spirit (and beer)

Young Henrys wants to grow the whole craft sector, “instead of just stealing market share off each other,” says Hampton. “We’ve always looked to collaborate on events where the fans aren’t already craft beer drinkers. If we can grow the craft portion of beer sales, instead of preaching to the converted, we can hopefully convert them and grow the pie.” Or the kegs, as it were. 

Community brewers

With its motto “Serve the People”, Young Henrys has leapt into numerous collaborations with the local community and garnered enthusiastic support in return. Hampton concedes it’s relatively easy to do in Sydney’s Inner West “and particularly Newtown – people rally behind good people and good causes – and Oscar went to Newtown High, so he’s Newtown through and through”. 

As well as local businesses and community groups, Young Henrys has become synonymous with music. “It’s helped us to reach new audiences and it’s also what we’re interested in,” says Hampton. The brewery is around the corner from the Enmore Theatre, so bands are invited over for a beer before a gig.

Aussie rock band You Am I was going on tour without a new album, so toured with a special Young Henrys beer instead. “They said, ‘We’d normally have a new album to talk about, how about we brew a beer together and we’ll talk about the beer?!’ It was our first major beer collaboration and it was a lot of fun,” says Hampton. Brew Am I was such a hit that Young Henrys has brought it back a couple of times. Those creative connections put the brand in people’s minds more powerfully than any ad.

Staff as family

Young Henrys has grown, says Hampton, “by finding more like-minded people and bringing them in to be part of the family… that’s how we’ve become a national beer brand”. Young Henrys is now available in every state and territory, with a national sales team. “We’ve always attracted great staff – they work so hard and we need that level of buy-in and passion. And we have great retention.”

Hampton acknowledges there was a moment when he realised his sales team “was out of whack”, there wasn’t a single woman.

“I was using the excuse that we’d advertise and get 40 blokes apply and one female and I’d say, I will just hire the best person, rather than base it on gender.” A friend told him he needed to get over that and fix it. “Now we’ve got 35% female to male in a very male dominant industry, so while we’re not at 50/50, it’s a lot better than it was”.

Caption: Young Henrys staff photo

Burps along the way

“The list is endless,” jokes Hampton, “but you learn from each thing. We’ve had a lot of things go wrong in the past because we were willing to take a chance and have a crack. We thought it would be great to build a bunch of breweries around Australia. We opened one in WA and realised it wasn’t sustainable. In a market that’s growing as quickly as the Australian craft beer market, there was a distinct shortage of brewers. We couldn’t find the right people, and it felt as if we were spreading ourselves a bit too thin. So we pulled away from that and I’m glad we did.”

Getting it right

Young Henrys always knew every batch had to be top quality. “If beer is going out there and hasn’t been ticked off by multiple key people then it risks hurting craft beer as a whole,” he says. Across the market, “People are now investing more in a lab and testing and the processes are being done properly. We did quite early in the piece, and it’s great to see the market following.”

Dodging the hipster bullet

The Young Henrys tasting bar is a famously family – and dog – friendly place to visit even though there’s a bit of a hipster vibe. “No one refers to themselves as a hipster but I get what it means,” laughs the bearded sales director. “You tell a bunch of guys they don’t need to shave and they throw the razor away – everyone’s inherently lazy!”

He acknowledges “in the early days we were at risk of being pigeon-holed as a hipster brand, but that’s not who we are. Beer is for everyone and we make beer for everyone. We are accessible to all, and we cross the gender divide.

When we look at who is in our tasting bar, it’s very broad. One guy has been coming to us from the outset and he’d be 90 in the shade – he brings in his empty growlers.” (Growlers are another Young Henry hallmark, an American tradition of refillable flagons) “I’m confident anyone who comes in here will be comfortable, and that’s important.”

Young Henrys is growing up

With a CEO (who’s also an investor) and a CFO now in place, and Young Henry the boy now 10 years old, this craft brewery is growing in a much more strategic way. “It probably looked like dumb luck for a long time, and maybe it was!” jokes Hampton. “We’ve got great creative people in our Young Henrys family, but behind the scenes now it looks like many other businesses, and we’re a lot more accountable.”

All the same, Hampton attributes their success to being able to make quick decisions and be nimble. “It starts at the top,” he says.

“We talk a lot, we throw ideas around, we’re not scared of others not liking the idea, we’re honest with each other and we’re always willing to agree with someone else’s view if they present a better argument, and that’s a big one. Communication between the decision makers is key, and then know what you stand for, be very clear on it, find good, like-minded people, educate and continually support them. It’s those people who continue the brand for you. Beer companies can’t be based on one or two people, the whole family needs to really live the brand, and it flows on from that.”

Young Henrys have been a member of NSW Business Chamber since 2012.